Identifying and Supporting Students With Dyspraxia
Dyspraxia affects fine and gross motor development and can make it difficult for kids to learn, but there are ways teachers can help.
We’ve all known them—those students who fall out of their chairs for no apparent reason or trip over their own feet daily, who leave a trail of their things wherever they go, who seem to need to drag a finger along the wall, who have illegible handwriting, or who can’t jump or catch or throw or tie their shoes. Whether a student checks every box on that list or just some of them, the issue may be more than just disorganization or clumsiness. The student may have dyspraxia.
Dyspraxia—also called developmental coordination disorder (DCD) or specific developmental disorder of motor function (SDDMF)—affects fine and gross motor development and can cause delays in normal developmental activities in about 10 percent of the population. According to the Dyspraxia Foundation, “Although the exact causes of dyspraxia are unknown, it is thought to be caused by a disruption in the way messages from the brain are transmitted to the body. This affects a person’s ability to perform movements in a smooth, coordinated way.”
Simply put, dyspraxia is a breakdown in the messages between the brain, nervous system, and muscles. The sensations of your butt in a chair, your feet on the floor, the air on your skin—all help you to find your place in the space around you. If suddenly one piece of input is lost, it’s as though the floor or the chair suddenly disappeared. Kids with dyspraxia can’t trust that the messages their brains receive—messages the rest of us take for granted—are accurate.
What Dyspraxia May Look Like
Poor muscle strength (especially core): Kids with dyspraxia may slouch, slump, slide out of their chairs, or lean because they lack the core strength that many of their peers have. As they grow, they don’t gain that strength naturally, and just sitting up all day can be exhausting. They may be more likely to fall as the day goes on.
This poor muscle strength isn’t just in the core: Kids with dyspraxia may have trouble with fine motor skills because they lack the hand strength to grip a pencil or crayon, and doing so for long periods of time is exhausting for them.
Clumsiness: We may not realize how many small muscle movements we make in carrying out simple tasks like putting papers in a three-ring binder or packing a backpack. For most kids, two or three tries are sufficient to get the hang of these skills, and once achieved, they’re in place for life. For kids with dyspraxia, it takes roughly 100 attempts to get these skills down.
Poor executive function: It’s not uncommon for students with dyspraxia to have difficulty tracking instructions, particularly ones with multiple steps. Managing materials, getting and staying organized, planning ahead—all are particularly challenging for these kiddos.
Social and behavioral difficulties: Children with dyspraxia can get frustrated and may act out as a result. And the combination of exhaustion, inability to keep track of materials, and lack of skills that their peers attain more easily—skipping, running, catching or throwing a ball, riding a bike—makes students with dyspraxia visible and easy targets for bullies.
Supporting Students With Dyspraxia
Play: Kids with dyspraxia are at greater risk of isolation, depression, and anxiety because they take longer to acquire skills like throwing or catching a ball, running, and skipping, and to learn the rules of more complex schoolyard games. They also have risk of obesity because they get frustrated trying to gain these skills—and tend to be made fun of for not doing things as well as their peers—so they give up, and don't get enough activity as a result.
Find time to have students play silly games together as a class—ones where no one has an advantage because everyone is a novice. Avoid games that put a single child on the spot as the center of attention. Focus on having fun together as a community. For game ideas, consult the book Best New Games or try the icebreaker games A Great Wind Blows or Crocodile Race.
Pay attention to early-childhood challenges: Dyspraxia can show up first as small developmental delays. If parents noticed that their child was late sitting up, walking, standing, speaking, or potty training, they may be able to help you determine if the things you’re seeing are part of a larger pattern. Don’t be afraid to ask about what happened in the child’s life before they entered your class.
Pre-teach new skills and provide instructions that kids can refer to on their own: Learners with dyspraxia will be more successful if they have a chance to practice skills—playing a new game, using a three-hole punch, or making notes in the margin of a text—in a low-stakes environment first. Learning a new strategy and new content at the same time is challenging for neurotypical learners—for students with dyspraxia it can be a frustration-based disaster.
Break actions down into smaller steps: Have you ever paid attention to how many muscles you use to throw a ball? To draw a line between one item and another on a worksheet? To sit upright on the floor and pass items from hand to hand around the circle? Muscle memory is usually an issue for kids with dyspraxia, and learning any motor skill is going to take additional time and effort. Teach the individual steps and give time for practice before asking that they be demonstrated in front of peers.
Students with dyspraxia struggle to remember multistep directions. “Take off your coat, hang it on the hook, and come sit in the circle,” and “Get out last night’s homework, pass it forward, and open your book to page 72,” are challenging. Write instructions on the board and redirect students who seem lost mid-process.
Provide organizational support: Organizing multistep projects can also be challenging. You may already scaffold big projects into smaller chunks for your students, but kids with dyspraxia need more support. Consider checking in with them frequently, creating concrete benchmarks for processes, and reteaching skills until they finally move into regular use.
Consult your school’s therapist: Your school’s occupational or physical therapist may not only provide a diagnosis but also help students gain strength and skills. If a student’s family is able to provide support for additional work, the therapist may provide a home plan as well. And flexible seating options can be a real boon for these students.
Students with dyspraxia can become happy, successful students with the right supports, and that begins with identifying the issue. Recognizing the condition and helping the child find the right tools can make all the difference.